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White, woke and a winner: Chris Long is headed back to the Super Bowl

His performance has been impactful on and off the field

PHILADELPHIA – While most of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates left the locker room quickly late Jan. 21 to continue celebrating their NFC championship game victory, Chris Long remained behind and reflected on his impactful performance this season both on and off the field.

The veteran defensive end made his mark in a new protest movement for the civil rights of African-Americans, becoming the first white player to support black players who during the national anthem protested systemic oppression of black people, especially in the judicial system. Long backed up his strong words about philanthropy with his wallet, donating his entire 2017 salary to charity. And he championed specific social justice causes, meeting with government officials to push for criminal justice reform. All the while, Long excelled at his job: Off the bench, he was responsible for some of the team’s biggest defensive plays, including an early momentum-changer as the Eagles dominated the Minnesota Vikings to advance to the Super Bowl.

With the AFC champion New England Patriots – whom Long earned a Super Bowl ring with last season – up next, he had to turn the page quickly. After he selflessly accomplished so much, however, one couldn’t blame Long for taking a moment to look back.

“A lot of times, people say that we [athletes] shouldn’t have a lot of off-field engagements because it’ll affect how we perform on the field. I don’t buy that,” Long said. “The things we do off the field … that’s our responsibility.

“At the end of the day, it’s the least we can do. And we’re given so much, it’s what we should do. Everything I did off the field, or I was a part of … that’s who I am.”

Following a season in which Long was on the frontlines of the ongoing fight for equality, we know exactly who he is: The NFL’s most woke white player. He earned the title.

Way back in August, Long stepped up to stand with Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who in 2016 followed the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick – the first player to shine a light on racial injustice by demonstrating – and began raising a first during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For most of the season, Long was in a familiar position at the outset of each game, his right hand over his heart and his left one on Jenkins’ back.

“It was important, as a white athlete, to support Malcolm and everyone fighting for equality,” Long said. “If people don’t understand why we all should be invested in fighting for what’s right, they’ll probably never understand.”

Yep. Woke.

More than five months later, it’s easy to forget the significance of Long’s gesture. Remember: Black players who demonstrated were under siege from NFL fans, many of whom viewed the players’ actions as unpatriotic. Even President Donald Trump attacked players for exercising a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

By aligning himself with Jenkins and showing solidarity with all of the protesting players, Long jumped into one of the nation’s most polarizing debates in recent memory. After Long opened the door for other white players to join the fight, several followed him through it.

“He understands that we’re trying to help people and we’re trying to do what’s right, and we need as many allies as possible,” Jenkins said. “In his own way, he wanted to send a message of support.

“As a white man, he can’t necessarily understand everything I’ve experienced as a black man. But he knows that there’s a lot of work to be done, and he wants to help make a difference in a positive way.”

The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long, Long would be the first to say he had a privileged upbringing, “but I was raised to understand that people who have a lot should try to help others” less fortunate, Long said.

“It’s not about labels. I don’t consider myself to be any smarter or better than anyone else who’s out there trying to make a difference. But I do want to make a difference.”

That’s why Long didn’t stop at backing Jenkins and other players.

He spoke out on the violence in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, which erupted after multiple white supremacist rallies in September. Most notably, in a stunning act of giving, Long committed his entire salary (his contract includes $1.5 million in guarantees) this season to charities.

Obviously, you don’t see that often, an Eagles player said.

“It’s not something you’d really expect a lot of people to do, but he’s the type of guy who will always back up anything he says,” Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “You look at his career, he’s had a good career and done well financially. He wants to help people. But with the way he’s giving back … you can’t help but be impressed. It’s who he is.”

When Jenkins’ former cohorts in the movement came after him recently, Long again reminded us what he’s all about.

The co-leader of the Players Coalition, the main group of players who protested during the anthem, Jenkins pushed forward in negotiations with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations in late November. They reached an agreement in principle for nearly $100 million from owners to fund social justice programs that will, in theory, help African-Americans. Owners are expected to vote to finalize the deal at the annual league meetings in March.

But on the eve of the league’s groundbreaking offer, four key players split with the coalition. Blasting Jenkins’ handling of negotiations and their dissatisfaction with the NFL’s multifaceted offer — it earmarks at least $89 million over a seven-year period for both national and local projects — San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver Kenny Stills, and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung broke away from the coalition. Reid accused Jenkins of lying to players and secretly negotiating with Goodell. Jenkins denied the allegations.

Long pushed back against them – hard.

“I’m not going to turn down the chance to defend my friend,” Long said. “Malcolm has put so much time into advancing these issues that players are concerned about. Whether you like the deal or not, or you don’t think it’s enough [money], one thing I’m not really listening to is that his integrity isn’t there.

“He’s an honest dude. A lot of the dudes, a lot of the guys who splintered off, were working right alongside him until [recently], trying to accomplish the same type of thing. It sucks that we can’t do it together at the moment. I hope there’s a way that we can all get back together. I really do. But Malcolm cares.”

Despite all of Long’s hard work off the field, his focus on it has never been sharper.

In his 10th season, Long, 32, has been a productive pass-rush specialist. He finished the regular season with five sacks and a career-high four forced fumbles.

Early in the NFC title game, the Vikings held a 7-0 lead and the Eagles’ home-field crowd at Lincoln Financial Field went silent. Then Long made a great pass-rush move around the edge, pressured Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum and hit his arm while he threw. Cornerback Patrick Robinson wound up with a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown that got the Eagles rolling. Final score: Eagles, 38-7.

The play brought to mind Long’s strip sack of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff late during the fourth quarter of a Week 14 showdown of division leaders. The Eagles recovered the ball, and the play proved to be critical in the team’s 43-35 NFC East division-clinching road victory.

“I just want to prove I can still help,” Long said.

Long has already done that. In so many ways.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.